A Company of Soldiers and Gunner Palace (review)

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Grunt Work

It is suggested in A Company of Soldiers that those Americans who protest the invasion and occupation of Iraq are simply too afraid to come out and fight — if they have the energy to organize marches and demonstrations, they should sign up for the real battle. The cognitive dissonance required to come up with such a stubbornly diametric take on protest is downright stunning… until you consider that the man who proffers this bizarre idea is one of the grunts actually doing the fighting. Perhaps it’s simply psychologically easier to pretend that the people who don’t want our military forces misused are the ones who are wrong, and not the politicians who sent him into this disaster in the first place. Perhaps it hurts less to imagine that some spoiled hippie screaming a protest chant is delusional while the chickenhawks who were so gung ho for invasion, for putting our soldiers into this mess in the first place, are the very people now claiming that the fact that they have kids and mortgages means they themselves should be excused from joining up.
Documentarian Tom Roberts spent a month in Baghdad with Dog Company (1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment), and particularly with a small patrol within the company called the Misfits, in November 2004. The result is this film, a carefully unbiased and consequently devastating experience that should be seen by everyone all along the political spectrum, supporters and detractors alike — everyone should be aware of exactly what our tax money and our soldiers’ blood is being paid out for. (The film is airing on PBS as part of its series Frontline; you can also watch the entire movie online starting February 25.)

For the men of Dog Company, having kids and mortgages and lives back home does not exempt them from getting blown up by roadside bombs, picked off by snipers, or overrun by ambushes. Jesus God, the urban guerilla warfare these guys are dealing with on a daily basis — “the road to Baghdad Airport,” Roberts informs us, is “the most dangerous road in the world” — is so chaotic and terrifying that you, watching from the comfort of your own home, can’t help but go, “Fuck…” And yet the big “controversy” over PBS’s airing of Company is whether local affiliates should “dare” to air the unedited, unbleeped-out expletives the soldiers utter instinctively in the heat of battle. Talk about cognitive dissonance: raw language in one of the worst situations human beings can find themselves is more offensive than the fact that these guys are there in the first place? If we as a nation can send our own citizens to be targets for everything from kids throwing stones to potshots from dark city streetcorners to improvised bombs left deliberately for them to drive over, we sure as hell can watch what it does to them.

The film makes no bones about it: these soldiers, all of whom seem like nice, decent guys, lots of whom aren’t afraid of shedding public tears over the death of a comrade, are doing the best they can with a horrible situation. Local Iraqi officials, when they aren’t covering up for insurgents operating in their areas, are stealing from their own people; the populace is so hostile to their presence that their Iraqi interpreter can appear on camera only in disguise or with his face blurred, with threats of retribution against him and his family coming regularly. And yet reminders are everywhere that the bleak, unwinnable impasse the soldiers find themselves in is our own doing — not theirs individually, but of the nation they represent. “We saw,” says Roberts, “what a blunt instrument an occupying army can be.” And we see it, too. This is what is being done in the name of America. It’s not pretty.

Under the gun
Impossible as it may sound, Gunner Palace is an even more cynical — that is, realistic — troops’ eye view of the occupation of Iraq, by embedded filmmaker Michael Tucker (who directed with Petra Epperlein). He arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, just after “major combat” was declared by President Bush to be “over” — the unpleasant joke on the guys of 2/3 Field Artillery is that “minor combat” in Iraq is barely distinguishable from “major.” And don’t think these guys aren’t perfectly well aware of all the many ironies of their predicament: they know — they say as much — that people at home would rather watch fake crap like Survivor than learn anything about the real challenges to stay alive American soldiers in Iraq are facing… not that their story turns up on the evening news much anyway.

But Tucker offers an honest and profound corrective to the deplorable dearth of coverage of what’s happening on the ground in Iraq. (I’m daring to hope that the almost simultaneous arrival of Gunner Palace and A Company of Soldiers means that there’s a growing interest in these issues. At the very least, perhaps a few previously ignorant eyes and minds will be opened.) For two noncontiguous months in 2003, Tucker hung out with these “Gunners,” hopping onto their Humvees as they patrolled one of the roughest areas of Baghdad and joining in on the parties at their HQ, a bombed-out palace that once belonged to Uday Hussein and boasts a still-working swimming pool. The emotional-roller-coaster contrasts of the lives of these soldiers is disconcerting even from an outsider’s perspective: from the sheer terror of nighttime raids to the bitter humor with which they improvise armor for their thin-skinned Humvees, from the pool parties and barbecues to the impromptu rap one soldier spits out to spell out how dissed he feels by his leaders (he means you, Mr. President).

Tucker gives us a look, too, at a Baghdad we don’t see on the evening news, a city that’s bustling and alive but terribly dangerous, with mortar fire and RPG attacks and angry demonstrations by the locals everyday events. But the heart and soul of the film is the soldiers, ordinary guys (and at least one gal). We get to know them better as individuals than we do the soldiers of Company, much of it through the disparities they face: these men are “trained to stop a Russian advance,” explains Tucker, “they like to blow stuff up,” but now they’re acting as much as cops and social workers as they are warriors; for every little Iraqi kid enthralled by them who wants to hold a hand or get a hug, there’s another who’s spitting at them and throwing rocks. They’re as friendly and open as it’s possible to be in the mess they’re in, eager to help the Iraqi people as much as they can. But these guys are pawns in a larger game not of their making, and they know it, even as they know that they can’t worry about politics when they’re just trying not to get killed.

The Gunners, who hail, as Tucker so poetically puts it, from “an atlas of forgotten America,” couldn’t epitomize any better the nightmare of the Iraqi disaster, and every idiot with a “Support the Troops” ribbon on his SUV who thinks that adage is the opposite of an antiwar position needs to see Gunner Palace. Supporting the troops means not putting them in the middle of debacles like this in the first place.

A Company of Soldiers
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site

Gunner Palace
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for strong language throughout, violent situations and some drug references
official site | IMDB

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